Bringing Death to life

The cast of Mortal: A drama

The cast of Mortal: A drama

Wellcome Collection’s Youth Programme is working with producer Elizabeth Lynch and a cast of ten teenagers. Together they have devised a theatrical response to our exhibition ‘Death: A self-portrait’. Here cast member Hannah gives an inside account of the devising process of Mortal: A drama.  

Death lurks near the jostling mass of London Euston station. Wellcome Collection’s exhibition ‘Death: A self-portrait’ leaves no (grave)stone unturned in exploring the visual representation of Death throughout the ages: from contemporary wire sculptures of the Grim Reaper to medieval tapestries of peasants falling into eternal damnation. A company of young actors, myself included, are using this morbid ephemera as inspiration for devising a piece of theatre that brings this exhibition, ironically, ‘to life’.

‘Mortal: A drama’ explores the devastating, gruesome and sometimes humorous aspects of death. Our fascination with death, as humans, has always had a theatrical quality to it, from the spectator sport of medieval witch-burnings to the final speeches of Shakespearian tragedies to the cult following behind the ‘Bunny Suicides’ merchandise today.

This entire play has been devised entirely within the company, from discussions about personal experiences and our ‘gut’ reactions to stimulus material. Director Elizabeth Lynch comments on the challenge of broaching such a sensitive subject matter with a group of relative strangers, commenting: “People come to different things at different stages of their lives. [Someone] may have been bereaved at an early age and therefore have a more profound understanding of death than a 35-year-old”. Although this is not a verbatim piece, the text we are working with has been taken straight from words spoken by members of the company, or directly from the written comments of visitors to the exhibition, and has simply been transposed into the mouths of different actors. This method, according to Lynch, is the best way of generating words that have genuine emotional authenticity, without there being any pressure on the actor to re-live their individual experiences or ‘bare their soul’ on stage.

‘Mortal: A drama’ is certainly not a traditional ‘aesthetically pleasing’ piece of theatre. It is jarring and surreal to watch, with periods of destructive dancing juxtaposed with reimagined reality television that judges the dramatic value of contestants’ deaths. Lynch firmly didn’t want to create a piece of theatre that just allows the audience to sit back and ‘enjoy’; she wanted to stimulate in the individual an ‘intellectual, emotional and sensual’ response.

As a company, our aim is to get the audience to think about the implications of their own deaths. If you died tomorrow, what are the things you wish you’d never said or done? What would your fantasy funeral be like? What objects would your family keep as mementos of you?

‘Life’ is intrinsic to a good performance, because actors need to feed off the energies of the audience and their fellow performers. The physical vibrancy of this piece and the youth of the company mean that this play could be seen to be more of a celebration of life than a dialogue with death. The only thing we know for certain about this life is that we get one shot at it. So let’s make the most of it!

Mortal: A drama can be seen at Wellcome Collection on Thursday 14 February at 18.30, Sunday 17 February at 15.00 (BSL interpreted) and Thursday 21 February at 19.30. Tickets are free.

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